For some years I have been gradually collecting the material for a book on governance: a book which explores ways in which a 21st century UK could be governed to the general advantage of all its people. Because I am getting on now and with a number of what are euphemistically known as “health issues” there is a real question mark over whether or not it will be written – especially as I intend to continue to support Marcia with my weekly Friday blog about life with a novelist plus there are four more parts of the five part series I am writing as companions to her novels. Anyway, putting all of that to one side, there is one thing I feel we need to take on board as a nation if we are to survive as a free country during what I believe will be difficult times: difficult because of two major issues: we are running out of natural resources and vast numbers of people in places like India and China are entering in the ‘developed world’ (and there is no reason why they should not) which will – is – changing the way the world’s trade operates and not always to our advantage. In simple terms that ‘thing’ is to face up to where we, the human race, came from. Most people will not want to know (will, indeed, refuse to accept) these truths and will prefer to cling to political thinking that is based on an entirely false view of mankind. Such thinking has been in fashion for a whisker over two hundred years out of man’s history which stretches back over many hundreds of thousands of years but already many are beginning to question the results. This ‘thing’ is the subject of the preface to the book yet to be written. Here is what it has to say.
Man is the dominant species on earth. That fact – and how it came about – has a huge impact on the environment, it has a huge impact on all other species and it has a huge impact on our relationships with each other. In short, it has a huge impact on politics and on governance for it is the way in which we are ruled and the way in which our rulers are selected (or self-selected) that determine whether or no those relationships create generally benign or generally malign outcomes.
What is extremely odd is that most of our political thinking for over a century has been based on a model of man (and throughout this book I would ask you to accept that ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ cover everyone regardless of gender, race, religious belief or any other matter that divides people) that bears little similarity with reality. Thus before we even start talking about governance, we need to try to work out what sort of animal man is. Then we can look at the best way for men to relate to each other.
I suppose it all started for me when I read African Genesis by Robert Ardrey many, many years ago – probably 1962 shortly after it was published. The opening paragraph sets the scene.
“Not in innocence, and not in Asia, was mankind born. The home of our fathers was that African highland reaching north from the Cape to the lakes if the Nile. Here we came about – slowly, ever so slowly – on a sky-swept savannah glowing with menace.”
Ardrey, born in Chicago in 1908, attended the University of Chicago where he studied anthropology and behavioural sciences but then turned to the writing of plays for the theatre and the screen at which, I should add, he was extremely good. But then, in the 1950’s, his interest in anthropology was re-awakened by the reports of work by two groups of people: one was scrabbling around in the earth hunting fossils and the other was carrying out long and careful observations of animal behaviour in the wild.
It was Raymond Dart – the Australian anthropologist and anatomist – who, having discovered the first fossil of an ancient hominid that he named Australopithecus africanus (the South African Ape) in 1924, started to question received wisdom: that man had arisen in Asia and had done so thanks to his giant brain. The Tuangs skull (the skull was found near a small town called Tuangs in the North West Province of South Africa) suggested otherwise. As more and more fossils were uncovered, it became clear that this hominid was carnivorous, a hunter with a particular predilection for baboon flesh – and one with a small brain. The world of science was not willing to release its hold on the ‘big brain out of Asia’ model and controversy was still raging when Dart retired in 1958.
Meanwhile other work being carried out in the 1920’s was to result in a profound discovery. Few people have heard of the British bird watcher Eliot Howard although he was considered to be the leading authority on warblers. That was to change with the publication of Territory in Birdlife in which Howard explained that a lifetime of observation proved to him that male birds do not fight over females: the fight over property. It would seem that it Howard was the first person to use the word territory in a zoological context.
Clarence Carpenter, an American primatologist of much the same age as Ardrey, proved by years of patient observation of chimpanzees and monkeys in the wild that amongst these, our closest living relatives, territoriality – in this case social territoriality – is universal.
Another important link in the chain was Robert Broom, one of the world’s greatest zoologists. In 1936, at the age of seventy, he was to discover the skull, teeth and brain case of an adult Australopithecus africanus. This enabled Broom to confirm all the projections that Dart had made from the fragments of the infant skull from Tuangs. Digging at Sterkfontein stopped shortly after war broke out and it was not until 1946 that Broom could get back to work. More and more fossils were found and eventually, Sir Arthur Keith (the British anthropologist) joined those who dropped all opposition to Dart’s theories.
Amongst this select band it is probable that Dr L S B Leakey was the most famous. Over many years he worked in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanganyika with Mary, his wife, uncovering hundreds of hominid fossils including, in 1959, the first maker of stone tools.
Ardrey realised that his class – the Class of 1930 – knew nothing of this work and, as a result, sought the attractions of a classless state peopled by men defined by characteristics that simply do not exist.
Thus it was the great thinkers and writers who have had great influence on the way we think about ourselves, about human society and about governance built the most complex and fascinating theories on foundations of shifting sand. I am thinking of men such as Thomas Jefferson (the main author of the American Declaration of Independence), Adam Smith (the Scottish political philosopher), Karl Marx (the revolutionary socialist) and, of course, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Contemporary wisdom had it that we were descended from peaceful and almost entirely vegetarian apes who might, on occasion, take a mouthful of some succulent insect – and that we became what we are because, by some mutation, we developed an enormous brain which enabled us to become what we are. In those days nothing was known of the drive to gain, maintain and defend the exclusive right to some piece of real estate now familiar to most of us (thanks in large part to people such as Sir David Attenborough whose television programmes bring nature into our homes) as territoriality. They did not know that chimpanzees are far from being vegetarian but actively hunt and kill smaller animals including monkeys – their close cousins. They did not know how important to all social animals is the sense of hierarchy: the drive to dominate and if that is not successful the willingness to be dominated. They did not know that both territoriality and, in social animals, rank are what drives males – not sex as was commonly believed (a belief based on observations of animals in zoos unable to exercise their normal instincts. They did not know that the human drive to acquire property and possessions is based on animal instincts that pre-dates man by many millions of years. They did not know that (and here I quote Ardrey) “status-seekers are responding to animal instincts equally characteristic of baboons, jackdaws, rock cod, and men”.
They did not know the first man was a killer – an armed killer – and that it was the computing power needed properly to control his weapons that led to the big brain. Nor did they know how powerful are the genetic instructions we receive from our DNA, instructions that we obey unknowingly and without thought even though they had their birth millions of years ago.
Today, however, we do know these things. You do not have to take my word for it (some of the works mentioned in the appendix will offer you substantial proof) and this is not the place to demonstrate those truths. However, we should always bear in mind that there are going to be new discoveries that will (as they always do) make us question some of our assumptions and think again about our responses.
Another quote from Ardrey: “Man is a primate. All primates are social animals. As social animals, all primates have developed to one degree or another such instinctual bundles as guarantee the survival of their societies. There is no reason to believe that man in his African genesis inherited from primate ancestors a bundle less complex.”
Suffice to say that this book is based on the fact that man is where he is in the world today because he has very sharp elbows, is totally ruthless and is a typical social animal: where the society in which he lives is highly territorial and those living within it are for ever striving for rank, possessions, celebrity – and tribal (national) status which is almost always expressed in terms of military power. Why else would we retain nuclear weapons when all know that their deployment would result in the annihilation of humanity? As a deterrent – and one we know to be false?
There would be no need for this book were it not for something quite incredible. Although so much is now known about the way social animals behave and interact and control their societies, the image of mankind that was fostered by men such as those I listed above remains the model for all politicians when they try to determine policies or control events.
The result, as my wife so often says, is that politics don’t work.
So what can we do? What should we do? These questions are probably unanswerable although I shall do what little I can to address them. If answers are to be found, answers which marry our modern desire for open, compassionate and democratic societies with our inbuilt instincts for survival and domination there is only one thing that can be certain: they must be based on man as he is and not man as we would have that he was. In short, they must be based on truth.
It is over fifty years since I read African Genesis (which was followed by The Territorial Imperative and The Social Contract). It is not that after fifty years I have come to any firm conclusions but rather that I think there may be something worthwhile in looking at politics from a very different view point and I am now old enough to be indifferent to either praise or criticism and so am able to express views that I know will be considered by some (especially those on the extremes be that left or right) to be anathema. Here are some of those views to indicate what I mean.
Men are not born equal
Striving to create equality is a waste of time and energy
It follows that equality of opportunity cannot exist
Life is not fair (which is not to deny that very British concept: fair play).
Men and women are different: they offer different skill sets and both skill sets are equally valuable and should be equally valued. There are, of course, some skill sets that are common to both sexes and there are some men whose skill sets are more the norm amongst women and vice versa.
Man has no rights. If he is lucky he lives in a society where, in return for meeting certain responsibilities, he will be able to enjoy certain benefits.
The time has come to see where this leads us. Welcome to a journey where we shall encounter many more questions than we shall answers and where the few answers that we do trip over will suggest actions which, paradoxically thanks to man’s innate characteristics, many would reject as either impossible or immoral.